OK...I recently went through a long exercise to find the most suitable "off the shelf" soundcard for my HTPC. I use the digital output of my card to a DD/DTS preamp (Meridian 561) and never use the analog outs. I also never listen to CDs through my HTPC so the resampling that all these "gaming" cards do is not an issue for me. I mainly use my HTPC for gaming, surfing, region free DVD playback, MP3s and dTV.
I'm using Win98SE and have had all of the following cards in my HTPC system at one point or another (always using the latest downloaded drivers):
Diamond Monster Sound MX400
Pros: It has a high quality RCA digital coax output jack on the back and it passed Dolby Digital from WinDVD and PowerDVD correctly. The driver software was actually fairly easy to setup. It also does regular PCM and automatically switched between DD and PCM without any user intervention.
Cons: Card no longer supported by company. No Win2K support. Drivers buggy--some games did not work, some settings didn't stay set. Does not pass DTS. Directsound acceleration crashed whenever I enabled it, scratchy sound 60% the time during gaming. Sound quality was a little on the dull side.
Verdict: I gave this card away to a friend..
Hercules Gametheater XP
Pros: Good sound quality for gaming and DVDs--Definately a noticible step up from the MX400. No "scratchiness" while playing games. Game compatibility was excellent. Easy to setup, worked right on my first try. High quality look and feel components. Win2K support.
Cons: Only passes DTS and DD through PowerDVD 3.0! Not only that but, you also have to manually select a software setting everytime you wanted to switch from PCM to DD/DTS! Driver software buggy--my settings would reset every now and then. Poor documentation.
Verdict: I ended up keeping the card and put it into my Win2K SMP box because the card did have some merits and is SMP friendly so far (unlike the soundblaster)..
Turtle Beach Santa Cruz
Pros: Same good sound quality as the Gametheater XP(same chip). Excellent game compatibility. Win2K support(didnâ€™t try it though).
Cons: Engineered differently but basically the same chipset as the Gametheater XP so it seems to have the same major flaw--it canâ€™t automatically switch between PCM and DD/DTS.. Strangely this card deals with it a different way...They give you a cable where one end is for DD/DTS and the other end is for PCM(!).. and I wasnâ€™t able to get PowerDVD or WinDVD to recognize SPDIF out using this "Versa jack"..
Verdict: Admittedly, I didnâ€™t spend a whole lot of time with this card because the setup and operation seem rather complicated but sound was similar to the Gametheater XP.. The "Versa jack" just wasnâ€™t a working solution for me. I also had a heck of a time de-installing the Hercules drivers and getting these to work right. (I never did get DD/DTS working).. Back to the store with this oneâ€¦
Soundblaster Live! 5.1
Pros: Sounded about as good as the Gametheater XP. Automatically switches between PCM, DD & DTS through PowerDVD and WinDVD with no problem. Win2K support. Game support excellent. Does everything I wanted it to do.
Cons: I had a very tough time getting this card to work perfectly. You have to set things in a few different locations to get digital out working. I had IRQ conflicts initially that mysteriously went away after 3-4 reboots... The drivers that came with the card didn't work right, however, the downloaded drivers worked 100%... The digital connector is a 1/8 mini plug so your must find an adapter because it wasn't supplied. I also heard that the output voltage is out of spec but it works fine on my Meridian. Doesn't work well with SMP (dropouts, scratchiness and crashes)..
Verdict: although it took a while to setup(and I almost gave up), it works exactly the way I wanted it to now and has been trouble free. This one's a keeper.
Price: $65 (oem version)
Hope this helps,
[This message has been edited by leemik (edited 05-21-2001).]